An old coin (or currency) is a window to history. And now it makes for good investment, too.
More awareness, thanks to the internet and greater purchasing power, are drawing people to old coins, says Malcolm F Todywalla of Mumbai-based Todywalla Auctions, one of only a few Archaeological Survey of India-licensed auction houses for coins and antiques in India.
When the Todywallas started the auction service in early 2000, “initial response was lukewarm. With (growing) awareness and a better economic environment, people had the disposable incomes to invest in coins,” says Todywalla, whose father started this business more than 40 years ago, as a dealer.
And how much money can a numismatist make? “It gives good returns,” says Todywalla, who was recently in Delhi to take part in an exhibition. “We have never seen any depreciation (in the prices). Bullion rates go up, so the intrinsic value of the coin, too, goes up,” he says adding, “Certain coins give 15% returns while certain others give more.”
The value of a coin depends on how rare it is, which mint issued it, metal content, its condition etc. A few years ago, a R5,000 banknote from 1960, which had been demonetised by the Morarji Desai government to clean up black money, was auctioned for R6 lakh.
Currently, says Todywalla, “British Indian coins and British Indian banknotes are doing well. That’s a recent phenomenon because their language is English and they have pictorials.” Other coins have inscriptions in languages such as Persian, Arabic, Brahmi, and Devanagari, which are not known to many.
Can numismatics be a full-fledged career? The answer depends on your perspective. Todywalla says it can be, provided “you have the right person to guide you and you buy the right coin at the right price.”
“More and more people are becoming numismatists,” says Todywalla, who is pursuing an MA in numismatics from Mumbai University while continuing with his work.
The Numismatic Society of India (NSI), founded in 1910, has 3,000 members in India and abroad, including 2500 coin collectors and scholars in the country.
Yet, Jai Prakash Singh, general secretary, NSI, who retired as professor from department of ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology, Banaras Hindu University, says numismatics cannot be an independent career, except for people who choose to become dealers. Clearly, there are some riders to this proposition.
What's it about?
Numismatics is the study/ collection of currency (coins, banknotes, or money in some other form like beads, tokens, and related objects). Historians use these to understand the past. A lot of people collect coins/banknotes and exchange them as well with other collectors. Some buy them for investment purposes
An average day in the life a young numismatist working in an auction house:
9.30-10am: Reach office.
Meet clients who have come to sell coins directly to you or to give consignments (for auction). List the coins to go in a catalogue. Consult books and online database to research coins that I have bought. Inspect those which have come in the new consignment
2.30pm: Visit clients and inform them about new coins available in the market, advise them about those coming up for auction, and make outright sales
5pm: Back in office. Prepare catalogues for upcoming auction
7pm: Plan for a trip to another city to meet clients
8pm: Return home
As a scholar in an academic institution, you’ll earn according to government pay scales for professors. If you trade coins/banknotes yourself, the money depends on how rare the item is, which mint issued it, its condition etc. Any auction house auctioning it would charge a commission
. Good grasp of history and knowledge of the language used on coins you want to study/collect and invest in
. Business (investment) acumen; an eye for spotting the right coin, to tell a genuine coin/note from a fake
. Networking/interpersonal skill
How do I get there?
You can get into this field even without formal training in history or numismatics, but a qualification will definitely help. So, your options include a degree in history, followed by a masters in history, which includes a paper/module or two on numismatics or an MA in numismatics. A PhD is desirable. Learn how to collect coins (and/or notes). Would you like to build a random collection or a specific one (by country/region, denomination, period, number, year etc)? Visit exhibitions, forums and websites to learn about coins and to check out pricing
Institutes & urls
. MA in numismatics and archaeology, Mumbai University
. MA in ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi
. MA in history, University of Calcutta, Kolkata
. MA, department of ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology, Dr Harisingh Gour University, Sagar, Madhya Pradesh
. Indian Institute of Research in Numismatic Studies, Nasik
Pros & cons
It’s a very niche field, not really a regular career
You need a good amount of money and an eye for the right coin, to begin with
Not many universities in India offer full-fledged courses in numismatics
A source of history
A scholar talks about the importance of the field
What’s the purpose of numismatics?
There are two important sources for construction and reconstruction of history — archaeological and literary sources.
Archaeological sources include (a) pottery items found through exploration and excavation and (b) coins while literary sources cover epigraphy and palaeography. These are original sources of history.
Coins are an important source material for writing and rewriting history and knowing the financial status of the issuing states. They demonstrate the economic condition of the period and dynasty. Gold coins mean that in a specific period the ruling dynasty had more gold (in other words it was really well-off). The Guptas issued gold coins, which is why they are called the golden dynasty.
The first coins were issued in Lidya (Lydia), a place in Europe. Around 6th century BC, punchmarked coins were issued by local rulers in India, Greece, China and other places.
What difficulties do you face in studying coins?
There are no difficulties. There is so much published material available.
What about the language? Which additional language should a student of numismatics learn?
A person should know palaeography. In India, the coins mostly have Brahmi (inscription), followed by Devanagari and then Greek. You should know the language of the coin you want to deal in.
Typically, what’s the premium that coins command in the Indian market?
Coins are a heritage article. They are antique. So, their price automatically increases.
Paras Nath Singh, professor, department of ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology, Banaras Hindu University and chairman, Numismatic Society of India interviewed by Rahat Bano